Creativity: Think Gourmet Meals, Not Magic Moments

Let's get beyond the lightbulb metaphor.

Posted May 09, 2018

Anthony Marini, used with permission
Source: Anthony Marini, used with permission

Here is how the Tesla Roadster was invented — a group of engineers imagined that electric vehicles could be fast, fun, and sporty looking. Then one had the idea of the Roadster, and they built it. The end.

What? That sounds wrong? Or maybe grossly oversimplified? Only because it is. But how often are innovations or discoveries reduced to single “Aha!” moments? How many magazine issues are dedicated to “breakthrough ideas”?

Lots of inventions can be summarized as a creative idea after they are made to work. The Roadster is a fast, fun, and sporty electric car. It's why creativity is most often symbolized with the emblem of a good idea — an illuminated light bulb. But that metaphor shrinks creativity to a single idea created in a single moment. And that is not how those who want to create should think about what needs to happen.

Putting the Light Out

The light bulb going on signifies illumination — moments of insight that change your perspective on a situation. With the new perspective, you can imagine things that were inconceivable before that insight. The idea that the Roadster should have more than one motor, for instance, opens up all kinds of possibilities that do not come to mind when assuming that cars always have one motor. Having insight is essential in the creative process, but it is far from the totality of the process.

To imagine something may take one idea, but to get it to work usually takes a great many ideas. The insight must become an invention — a working product. A car with multiple motors does not come into existence because of one idea. It requires hundreds, if not thousands, of ideas to work properly — where do the motors go? What do they control? How do they communicate with each other? Each question requires ideas to answer them, and new ideas often spawn even more questions.

Ideas also change, merge, and transform over time. To use a different example — songwriting — what starts as an idea for a chorus may turn into part of the verse. The original melody may change in unexpected ways as it is merged into a song. The melody can also inspire a harmony that, when paired with the melody, gives the verse a different feel and leads the song in a new direction.

The creation, modification, and synthesis of all these ideas is not just creativity — in fact, it is not even mostly creativity. Even in a "creative" activity like songwriting, most of the work is craft: the skilled, but predictable, application of knowledge. Composers use a great deal of conventions with respect to key, tempo, song structure, instrumentation roles, and so forth to bring what is imagined into reality.

The upshot is that there is no single magical idea that makes the whole creative process work. There may be moments of illumination that redirect thought or inspire exploration, but that illumination tends to start the process, not end it. What is needed is a metaphor that can remind those who are trying to be creative of this idea development and transformation over time.

Preparing the Gourmet Meal

Gourmet food preparation is such a metaphor, for it highlights the interplay of craft and creativity as ideas are synthesized into inventions over time.

The “gourmet” designation is what distinguishes creativity from pure craft. Anyone can cook a steak, and some may be very skilled at doing so. But the sous vide hanger steak dish pictured in this blog is something that required imagination to create, not simply better execution of known skills, though it required that too. If one does not know how to sous vide meat or sear a steak, this dish would fail.

Ingredients are ideas in this analogy, but so are the means of preparation. Cooking reminds us that ideas transform and merge by their integration, becoming different kinds of ideas. Marinating a cut of beef and then searing it on a grill makes a new kind of ingredient. Ground beef prepared one way is steak tartare, prepared another is a hamburger.

Gourmet cooking also reminds us of the cycle of craft and creativity. Understanding which ingredients might make a steak taste good requires knowing about how ingredients flavor meat (craft) and then imagining new combinations (creativity). Once a new combination is made, the recipe becomes part of one’s craft knowledge and can be used in new kinds of dishes (creativity), expanding a chef’s repertoire (craft).

Gourmet cooking expands our view of the creative process, because we understand that the meal that is plated (by analogy, the invention) has creativity infused within it. Further, that creativity can touch more than just how ingredients are combined. It can touch what people imagine to be ingredients in the first place — dandelions, once thought to be weeds, are now being sold as salad greens at Whole Foods. Creativity can emerge in preparation techniques as well, like the invention of roasting a chicken with a beer can inside it. There are creative ways of plating and presenting food.

A gourmet meal infuses creativity into the craft of cooking across the meal preparation process and along many dimensions of value (taste, preparation, presentation, and so on). It was the same for the Roadster, where creativity was infused into the craft of engineering and design in the product development process along dimensions related to speed, style, and sportiness. 

Becoming a Great Chef

In my last blog, I said that creativity was something that people can learn to do better; it is not just a matter of talent. One thing you should have learned from this post is that creativity is not completed in a moment or with one idea, and you should not expect it to be. It is the first step on a longer journey.

But the gourmet analogy also implies something else that should change how you think about creativity — creativity starts with craft. Probably without exception, while famous chefs have some natural ability to start, they got better because they trained, and a large part of this was learning how to cook. One can follow Bobby Flay’s recipe for Grapefruit Sabayon, but this does not mean that what you come up with will taste like Bobby Flay made it, unless you have honed your craft skills.

Saying that craft leads to creativity contradicts the conventional wisdom about novices being more creative. That is a myth that must be dispelled too, but that is a subject for a future blog. So tune in next time....